JUST BEFORE COVID-19 came and made egg salad of the world, I took the principled but in retrospect foolish step of removing myself from all social media. The world—my world, particularly—had become too mediated by screens. Life, I felt, was happening inside the enclosed porch but I was on the wrong side of it, like a mosquito trying to get in. I yearned for likes and ached for followers. I had surrendered my sense of direction to GPS and my sense of self to algorithms. So I dumped my smartphone for a dumb one; deleted Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook; forswore Google Calendar for an old-fashioned day planner; and vowed to live my life face-to-face. It has not gone according to plan.
Now quarantined, I, like millions around the world, am confined to close quarters. Very close quarters. Quarters so close they’re more like dimes. My domain consists in its entirety at the moment of the bedroom, living room, and kitchen of my Brooklyn apartment. And I’ve come to rely on the very screens I so recently disavowed for all of my human interaction. Could screens become my savior? Did I have any other option?
So I quickly backtracked as best I could, delved into the Internet of Things, downloaded a bunch of video-conference apps, and tried to de-island myself through, as Boris Johnson called it from his self-quarantine, “the wizardry of modern technology.” I was about to embark on a journey to nowhere, to the limits of virtual connection during quarantine and to the very ends of how much screens actually bring us together.
I’M AN ACTIVE guy and rely on this physical activity to burn off some of my aggression. Anxiety, which I have in spades at the moment, breeds aggression, and yet my main outlet for its expiation, Brazilian jujitsu, is gone. The dojo closed a few weeks ago and will be closed for the duration of the pandemic. Though my professor has been posting videos of solo drills—as has BJJ mastermind John Danaher—without rolling I’m going a little nuts.
Thankfully, At Home or Virtual Fitness or Whatever You Want to Call It Movement is very of the moment. There’s Mirror and Tonal and Peloton and Tempo and FightCamp and more. Each promises a hard workout at home, guided by instructors with varying degrees of community interaction. But few appealed. The idea of staring into a Mirror in which a very fit instructor is superimposed onto IRL me feels like both an Oscar Wilde setup and an act of self-flagellation. Tonal, a wall-mounted fitness studio, seemed more promising, but my apartment’s walls are weaker than a pushover’s will. Peloton, a bike with a lively social component and a $4 billion company, was a logical choice. But I already have two bikes for normal time—a Bianchi for myself and a Yuba for me and the kids—and the thought of a third bike in my life was untenable. I settled on a rowing machine called a Hydrow.
The company, which launched in 2018, combines the theological approach of Peloton—there is a fitness god; you must follow this god’s workout edicts—with the maniacal difficulty of indoor rowing, also called erging. It’s a heavy machine and a large one (24 by 86 inches) but can be stored vertically, too. Having rowed in college, I am well familiar with the mechanics of rowing—legs, back, arms; arms, back, legs—but have always, always found those interminable ergs so boring the physical benefits never outpaced the hellish slog. Hydrow, however, comes with a large screen, a roster of photogenic athletes, hundreds of workouts, and, crucially, other rowers whose progress is tracked against your own.
Yes, it’s true my first act as a quarantee was to get a rowing machine. (He rowed while Brooklyn burned.) But I figured, I think rightly in retrospect, that if I were cooped up with no physical outlet, I would go insane and no amount of screens could pull me back from the brink.
WOKE UP THIS morning and did a 30-minute row in the canals around Miami Beach, which was… weird. Sunny climes in an age of darkness seem profane and yet there’s something so uplifting about moving in unison with another person, even if they’re on a screen, even if they’re not live, even if they can’t see you, that I got off the erg buoyant, joyful, and sweaty.
Graham M. Jones, an anthropology professor at MIT who studies the intersection of art, culture, and technology, understands. “In a time when we’re spending a lot of time alone, I think many of us are becoming intensely attuned to ways of achieving [kinship] in the absence of proximity…. I think bodies moving in harmonious motion is a powerful engine for human sense of intersubjective connectedness.” Also, it’s hell on my lats.
The buoyancy was much needed, too. As a freelance writer, I’m used to solitude. But I hadn’t quite realized until now how much the option of meeting a friend for lunch or a source for an interview kept me sane. These past weeks have been busy ones in part because the end of the world yields many interesting stories, from distilleries pumping out hand sanitizer to the rich fleeing to the Hamptons. And yet, as I quickly discovered, I yearned to, well, just hang out with someone.
To Zoom or to FaceTime or to Hangout or Webex to Skype or… well, it’s all the same to me, really. I needed a human being. Like any 38-year-old, I called my mom, a seventy-year-old who still says “the Google.” I FaceTimed through our desktops to her home in California but, weirdly, my sister picked up alongside my nephew. Then my mom called my iPhone, and so then I was talking to my sister on my computer and seeing my mom on the phone, holding one up to the other like child to parent, which they actually are. It was like a mise en abyme of videoconferencing or a Mondrian of those I love. I had not yet realized that I wouldn’t see the bottom half of a person for a very long time.
Usually I have therapy on Wednesdays. Well, I used to have therapy on Wednesdays. I quit a few months back, shortly after I wrote a piece for Men’s Health, ironically about excuses for quitting therapy. Reason 27 was nonfiction—“I wanted to sleep with my therapist, it got weird, and I quit”—and I closed the piece with a line about what to do with that feeling: “Sometimes you write about it in an article for Men’s Health, then send the clipping to your therapist and see how it all shakes out.” (More-expert advice included discussing those feelings of transference with your therapist and working through them.)
At any rate, I had sent the clipping, as I said I would, to my therapist, but silence had shaken from the therapeutic branch. So when I got an email from her asking if I would want a virtual session next week, I was hesitant. But… maybe this was our moment? Who knows, but I had nothing else to do, was truly struggling with loneliness and boredom, and so we arranged for a session.
Anyone who has been in therapy well knows the ritual around it: the long ride up the elevator, the purgatory of the waiting room, the slightly out-of-date magazines. Then you are bidden to follow your therapist into their office, the particulars of which soon come to hold totemic significance. Couch means safe space; neutral landscape means I can talk about my father.
Skype therapy, however, is different. With a few beeps and boops, Julia is in my bedroom and I am in her… I don’t know… den? There are a few books on a shelf behind her and a neutral green wall. OMG, I thought, what if her home looks just like her office? How would I feel about that?
The fuzziness was made even fuzzier by the fact that I was having therapy in the self-same rectangle in which I’ve interviewed sex workers coping with COVID; real estate agents and chefs; in which I had so recently chatted with my mother, my kids, and a few friends. All human interaction now took place through the same window, and this clouded the boundaries between them. Is this a meeting? Therapy? A date?
As it was, it wasn’t clear to me who was comforting whom during our session. I felt like I was reassuring Julia that everything would be okay more than she was me, but then, just before our time was up, I realized she hadn’t actually asked me to comfort her at all. I had done that on my own. Ah, this was the therapeutic insight.
What I had written about being attracted to her went unremarked upon until the very end. “It’s transference,” she said, “but it could have been a starting point of a discussion.”
“See you next week?” she says.
“See you next week?”
I contemplate hitting “End Meeting” but instead say, “Sure.”
As I closed the laptop it occurred to me I hadn’t really let down my guard for the entire session. In 2004, John R. Suler, Ph.D., at Rider University coined the term “online disinhibition effect” in an article for CyberPsychology & Behavior to describe the rather more freewheeling nature of our actions online. “People say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say and do in the face-to-face world,” he wrote. “They loosen up, feel less restrained, and express themselves more openly.” Suler breaks disinhibition into benign and toxic varietals, but both, he posits, are caused by the same six reasons. Among them are asynchronicity (not having conversations in real time), invisibility (i.e., you can’t see me), and solipsistic interjection (It is the Internet. We are one).
For most of what I was doing, few of those factors were present. My appointment with Julia was synchronicitous, visible, and made it very clear that we were not one. But what did apply, I realized, was the minimization of status and authority, the sixth of Suler’s factors. Absent the stagecraft of a therapist’s office, I couldn’t hold Julia in enough professional remove to actually open up about the fact that, yes, I am scared for the future and yes, I do worry I shall be undone by the pandemic. I always hated those pillows on her couch. But now, I realized, I relied on them.
So much has been written about how the Internet strips us humans of our humanity, but I was rather finding—and perhaps because we all ended up on the Internet after being attacked by a virus—that I was having trouble layering back on the professional identity. Celebrities. Therapists. Late-night talk show hosts. We’re all just humans in our living rooms looking at our screens at each other.
ERGED 45 MINUTES in a prerecorded session with an athlete named Sera Moon Busse. I’m developing a crush. Maybe a friend? It hardly matters that this is a purely one-sided affair, disregarding time. Also, I realized I hate leaderboards. It’s not that I’m not competitive but that I’m too competitive. Climbing a leaderboard becomes the only metric I care about; meanwhile the water glides past me unnoticed. Anyway, I like just hanging out with Sera, who’s from Boston and chirpy and definitely a jock.
And this all brings to mind, on hump day, the accommodations that must be made for the flesh. I’m a single guy, newly divorced, down to party. The one area of my life, pre-COVID, exempted from the digital fatwa was dating. Online dating is so predominant these days, it felt oddly aggressive to try to start relationships in person. Before the virus, a common trope on Hinge and Tinder was “I’m not looking for a pen pal.” Now pen pals are all there are. But oh boy, what epistolary fun.
It turns out everyone is bored. Former flames have been reaching out, goaded by a mixture, I imagine, of death-doorstep regret (maybe I was the one?) and boredom. I’ve been racily WhatsApping with an ex-girlfriend living in Belgium. Thanks to the time difference, I wake up to steamy shots in Bruges. I also scheduled a Zoom Hinge date with a Russian lady I’ve met IRL just once for coffee, back in the days when one did that kind of thing.
“Hey,” I messaged, “wanna grab a drink on Zoom?” She used an emoji of a smiling face winking to say yes. I suggested we get dressed up because I hadn’t changed out of sweatpants in a few days and felt myself inching ever closer to looking like Cathy. So I threw on a dress shirt and blazer, poured myself a glass of Dalmore, and dialed in. I didn’t, however, change pants, because what I realized after three days is lower bodies are immaterial in this quarantine world.
After a few chirps I found myself peering at her on my screen. It was… fun. Strange. Again, I couldn’t quite get the rhythm right in my mind: Was this a meeting? A date? Therapy? I’ve been so conditioned by office life that the thought of flirting over teleconferencing software raises howls from my own internal HR department. So she drank wine and I whisky. She did her nails and I watched. We talked about SEO search terms, which still are a mystery to me. I eagerly awaited Suler’s online disinhibition effect, but if anything I felt more constrained. In a chat with MH advisor Gregory Scott Brown, M.D., a psychiatrist in Austin, Texas, he said that was natural. “We rely on human touch and cues for how to behave. Interacting purely online takes those away from us.”
The thing about a Zoom date is that it is more effortless to end than an in-person date and yet more difficult, since there’s no naturally occurring terminus. It’s not like either one of us has anything to do. There was no meal to finish. Also, there’s nowhere to go after. Signing off feels like a defeat but a tender one.
That night I read an article about virtual wine parties using an app called Houseparty, online DJ sessions on Instagram and Facebook, and I feel, I hate to say it, left out. Are my friends having house parties without me on Houseparty? Is there a Webex meeting with everyone else in it?
I pour myself some more Dalmore and drift to sleep.
IT’S RAINING TODAY and the forecast says it’ll rain forever. If Noah had the Weather Channel, I bet he would have been even more bummed. Thankfully in Miami it’s all sunshine and naivete. Up until now I’ve been doing prerecorded workouts on Hydrow, but there are live classes, too. I tune in to one led by Nick Karwoski, tall and handsome golden-retriever-type chap, equal parts Adonis and Optimist. “Joshuadavidstein,” he says when I join. “Full name, bro. I like it.” I blush on my rower. I feel seen. It’s a 30-minute sweat with high-intensity intervals in the middle third. And it’s live, so Nick sometimes mentions how strange things are out there in Miami.
“Out there.” I haven’t been “out there” in a long time but it feels somehow comforting that out on Indian Creek, where Nick is, the same laws of fluid dynamics hold and the same numbers—splits, a measure of power, and strokes per minute, a measure of speed—remain the sole focus of the workout. The sequence—drive the legs, swing the upper body, follow with the arms—stays simple enough to repeat and, in a world with so much else up in the air, graspable. I’m on the water but grounded.
Afterwards, I’m hungry but running low on options. Even though I’ve written a handful of cookbooks, I’ve never been a big home cook myself. I’m a restaurant guy and get off on the frisson of a packed dining room. All that’s gone now. For the last couple of days, I’ve been working through my stash of frozen berries, whey protein, and milk. But a man can’t live on protein shakes alone. Thankfully, as part of my general quarantine freak-out, I got a Thermomix TM6, a German-made everythinger. It braises. It sautes. It chops. It makes ice cream and butter and has a score of other functions. It’s about the size of a Wheaten terrier and looks like a spaceship. There’s a screen, so my kids think they can watch television on it, which they can’t. Of course, there’s also an app and, like every other T from the IoT, “a community” associated with it. I used to scoff at these brands and their communities, as if every appliance or service we downloaded warranted its own planned development with security gate, rec room, and social events. But isolated, I find myself more susceptible these days. Cookidoo, the deeply sillily named app, has thousands of recipes to choose from submitted by both testers and, I guess, Cookidooers (Cookidooes? Cookidooks?). Because all my tomatoes are mushier than a rom-com and must be used, I select a recipe for creamy tomato soup and turn the dial to blend.
Then I tune in to a live class on Facebook about no-knead bread making, which I need. The lady, named Lynette, walks me through making hot cross buns, an Easter specialty. Bread making, once a gnomic endeavor, has been simplified to knob twisting. The whole thing is so easy it almost feels like cheating. Like, cooking should be more than following the chimes and terse Germanic direction of a cheery lady named Lynette, but the tomato soup is damn good and my buns, when the buns emerge from my oven, are tight.
I know I’m not supposed to, but I dip my hot cross buns into my tomato soup and read T.S. Eliot before I go to bed. “April is the cruellest month,” he writes, “breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” Eliot is right but March ain’t been too great, either.
IF ELISABETH KUBLER-ROSS got a quarter every time someone used her five stages of grief in a non-death setting, she’d be a gazillionaire. (Instead the author of On Death and Dying died in 2004 in a nursing home in Scottsdale.) But she was on to something. After cataloging five days straight of these quarantine routines, I woke up with a certain philosophical acceptance of my isolation. Uncertainty faces us and we FaceTime it. My ex-wife, who is immunocompromised, is just a few blocks away but, as a precaution, I haven’t seen her in days, which means I also haven’t seen my kids in days. They exist to me as chopped and screwed pixels who, mostly, don’t want to have convos with their DaddyPoops on their iPads, and I don’t blame them. I think back to what Dr. Brown told me about physical presence. I think about how I haven’t touched another human being many days now. And I realize now how much I connect to my kids not by talking but by roughhousing or tousling their hair or just—if you have kids who are six and eight, you’ll know—the sheer amount of physical contact that transpires over a day. Even if they did want to talk to me, which they don’t, I’d miss that.
This morning, I meditated for the first time in a few days. There’s a joke that a Buddhist is always doing one of two things: meditating or feeling bad about not meditating. Now, when I’ve needed the most mental stability, I’ve found it harder than ever to get onto the cushion. Today, I recommitted to the practice. As a Buddhist, I have taken refuge in the three jewels: the Buddha, as a model; the dharma, his teachings; and the sangha, the community. The first two are a cinch but the third is hard to come by, especially now. Downloaded dharma talks have helped me get through these days—they’re in steady rotation along with Brian Lehrer, David Berman, and this epic Spotify mix my friend made—but to be able to sit with others is profoundly meaningful. In terms of mindfulness, I have nothing against apps like Headspace or MNDFL, but for me, my sangha is pretty specifically tied to a tradition and a Zendo. Like most houses of worship, my local Zen Center offers Zoom sits and services in the morning, from 7:15 a.m. onward. So instead of rowing, I practice stillness, knowing that in other parts of the world, others are sitting with me. By not doing anything but sitting still, of course, the lively chatter of fear and anxiety soon fills my mind. I nod to them and let them leave again. This repeats for the next 20 minutes but I know the letting go is the practice.
After the closing chant, I shut the laptop and spend some time on the cushion, contemplating what’s called prat?tyasamutp?da, or interdependent arising. Day after day in self-isolation—the start of a new normal for however long social distancing may last—has left me more aware of both my aloneness and my connection with others than I’ve ever felt before. Have the screens saved me? Have they damned me? Neither, really. The screens have been a mirror in which my own strengths and frailties have been reflected pretty accurately.
Some day, longer away than I wish but sooner than perhaps it might feel, we will be loosed from our quarantine and back into the world. These screens, I hope, will fade back into their proper importance with face-to-face interactions—what I miss so much—reestablishing themselves. But it’s also into a new world we will be released. And for me, that’s one in which screens no longer are an enemy but can be portal too. Another way to be with those we love and miss. Another way to be present.
I get off the cushion, wiggle my toes until they wake up, then I walk the few feet to my Hydrow. I strap in and start rowing. It feels good to move together, to realize, screen or no screen, seen or not seen, we’re all in the same boat together.